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Few House freshmen able to move bills through Congress

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Posted at 6:21 PM, Oct 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-30 18:50:07-04

Voters who live in an area represented by a first-time U.S. representative shouldn’t be surprised if nothing happens to bills from their congressional district.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, recalls orientation during his first days in Washington and being told that passing legislation as a freshman is “just not going to happen.”

“That’s not something that we were satisfied with,” he said. O’Rourke introduced 11 bills, none of which became law, although the language from one bill was included in legislation that did become law.

The Scripps Howard Foundation Wire analyzed 721 bills introduced by House freshmen during the 113th Congress, which ends Jan. 2.

Only 19 bills sponsored by freshmen – 2.6 percent – became laws. The overwhelming majority of freshmen bills – 84 percent – received no action beyond being referred to a committee. Of the 19 bills that became laws, seven involved renaming post offices and other public buildings.

But freshmen aren’t alone. Out of the 4,959 bills introduced by House members with seniority, only 113 became law, an even worse rate – 2.3 percent. 

The data set, which came from OpenCongress.org and THOMAS, a Library of Congress website, does not include House resolutions or amendments. The analysis did not include members of Congress who have served a prior term in a different district or who served less than a full term.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate, said other metrics, including how a member of Congress works with federal agencies and the private sector, can help determine effectiveness.

“Most members of Congress, regardless of seniority, don’t have success passing legislation,” he said.

Instead, he said, looking at how the representative works with staff members and fellow representatives can help determine “rising stars.”

When a bill is introduced, it is referred to a committee. From there, it might continue to a subcommittee, which can choose to hold hearings and propose amendments to the bill.

The subcommittee decides by majority vote whether to report the bill to the committee. The committee can send the bill to the House floor or kill it.

What House freshmen introduced in the 113th Congress

O’Rourke said there are “many ways for a good idea to become law,” and freshmen often have success getting House amendments included in legislation.

Kevin Wagner, assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, specializes in American government and legislation. Wagner said representatives often face limitations during their first terms.

“Getting a bill passed is often a process of give and take,” he said. “Freshmen congressmen often don’t have a lot of support going in.”

Wagner, who lives in Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy’s 18th District, said things might have been easier for Murphy if Democrats were the majority party. All of the Democratic congressman’s bills were referred to committees, which took no action on them.

“Murphy comes from a relatively competitive district,” he said. “Republicans wouldn’t want to give him too many victories, if any at all.”

Murphy was not available for an interview, but Erin Moffet Hale, his communication director, said Murphy has focused on making a difference locally and promoting bipartisanship.

“With the gridlock that we have in Congress right now, not many bills are passed, period,” she said.

Murphy has focused on constituent services, she said, and started a caucus that is seeking long-term, bipartisan solutions.

“It shouldn't be about who wins or loses,” she said. “It should be about doing a good job.”

Focusing only on raw numbers, three freshman representatives stand out as successful, with 25 percent of bills they introduced becoming law – Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.       

But Alan Wiseman and Craig Volden, co-authors of a new book that evaluates the effectiveness of Congress, warn that looking only at percentages can be misleading.

For example, a representative could introduce two commemorative bills. If one becomes law, the success rate is 50 percent. Another representative who introduces several pieces of substantial legislation that don’t make it past committee would be considered unsuccessful.

“There are other aspects of lawmaking that are quite important that don’t directly involve one moving their own legislative agendas through the process,” Wiseman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, said Oct. 14 at news conference.

Wiseman and Volden, a professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia, examined every House bill introduced from 1973 to 2012 and designed a formula to calculate the legislative effectiveness of each member.

“It takes more than any individual member to get things done in Congress,” said Volden, and effective House members “cultivate a broad set of allies,” along with focusing on personal expertise and their districts’ needs.

“A lack of seniority, especially in the minority party, means it’s tough to get anything done,” he said. Instead of focusing solely on whether bills become law, constituents should look at what bills their representatives choose to co-sponsor and how many bills make it through the early stages – getting subcommittee and committee hearings and making it to the House floor.

“That, for us, is a really successful freshman,” Volden said. “It doesn’t need to look like they have all kinds of laws to their names.”

Christian Flynn is the director of Harvard University’s Newly Elected Members of Congress conference. The conference brings House freshmen in for a four-day program led by current and former representatives, policy analysts and professors.

For Flynn, success is defined by working well with fellow representatives regardless of party affiliation. He used Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, as an example.

Gabbard’s first bill, the Helping Heroes Fly Act, became law with support from both Democrats and Republicans. The law simplifies airport screening for disabled service members and veterans.

Gabbard said she views the bill as a symbol of what’s possible when representatives sincerely want to work together.

When she arrived in office, she brought 434 boxes of Hawaiian toffee with her to give her fellow representatives.

“It gave me that opportunity to start that conversation and build those relationships,” she said. “Those relationships are also what helped us get that bill not only unanimously through the House, but unanimously through the Senate,” she said.

Gabbard’s approach is something Flynn might prescribe.

“What we think makes people successful in Congress is being able to come together and find common projects and issues and topics to study together,” Flynn said.

Reach reporter Ayana Stewart at ayana.stewart@scripps.com or 202-408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter​.